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Top US Shippers: PPE shipments tring downward as vaccinations increase
American Shipper
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Imports of personal protective equipment (PPE) are slowing down this year as COVID-19 positivity rates in the US decline, but demand for gloves — and the expedited ocean shipping services that carry them — will remain strong as long as vaccinations continue, according to freight forwarders who book these products.

Demand for PPE, including masks, gowns, and gloves, exploded last year as medical professionals worked feverishly to treat victims of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) and consumers looked to arm themselves with one of the few weapons they had to help stem the spread of the pandemic. US imports of PPE of all types rose 25.4 percent to 698,397 TEU, according to PIERS, a sister product of within IHS Markit.

“It really did come out of nowhere,” said John Lauer, utive vice president and chief commercial officer at ocean carrier Matson Navigation.

Initial shipments of PPE in early 2020 were so urgent that they moved by air, but when airplane belly space was slashed by the grounding of the passenger fleet, PPE moved quickly to ocean, especially expedited services from Asia such as those Matson offers, Lauer said.

Textile articles, especially masks, were the largest category of PPE imports, totaling 163,515 TEU, an increase of 50.8 percent from 2019, according to PIERS. Gloves totaled 53,555 TEU, an increase of 104 percent from 2019, while surgical garments totaled 45,087 TEU, an increase of 591.6 percent.

The volume of masks in particular has declined over the past two months as vaccinations have increased, Lauer said. “PPE is trailing down,” he said.

But Jack Chang, managing director at JUSDA, a non-vessel-operating common carrier (NVO), said demand for gloves is increasing because medical professionals are constantly changing gloves as they administer the vaccines.

“The biggest demand now is for gloves,” said Chang. “The glove business is booming now, and it will increase because of the vaccines.”

Given the urgency involved in transporting PPE to customers, Chang said direct importers and NVOs favor expedited ocean services.

“We work with NVOs on a number of these shipments,” Lauer said. “They’re looking for speed and reliability.”

Sailings on Matson’s CLX service from China to Long Beach are never blanked (canceled), even during the Lunar New Year lull, and PPE importers appreciate that reliability, Lauer said.

Blanked sailings in the eastbound trans-Pacific by most carriers continue this year even though import volumes are moving at record and near-record levels, although carriers describe many of those as “structural blanks” that are required to get vessels back on schedule. Trans-Pacific carriers so far this year have canceled or announced 121 sailings to the West Coast and 21 to the East Coast, according to Sea-Intelligence Maritime Consulting.

In addition to expedited ocean transport, PPE shippers also seek a seamless transfer of the containers from the terminal to overland carriers, Lauer said. When the CLX service arrives in Long Beach, it is worked at the joint-venture SSA-Matson terminal, a proprietary-use facility with its own chassis fleet, Lauer said. SSA trucks inbound containers to an off-dock site where they are available for next-day pickup, he said.

Zim Integrated Shipping Services and CMA CGM also offer expedited services to Oakland and the Northwest Seaport Alliance of Seattle and Tacoma (NWSA) as options for shippers seeking to escape congestion issues in Southern California. Los Angeles–Long Beach is the largest US gateway for PPE imports, with 264,422 TEU in 2020. Oakland was the fourth busiest PPE gateway with 44,755 TEU, and the NWSA handled 28,716 TEU, according to PIERS.

Northeast Asia, including China, remains the largest source of PPE. Imports from that region last year jumped 43.1 percent year over year to 391,252 TEU. Southeast Asia handled 102,678 TEU, an increase of 17.4 percent over 2019; North Europe handled 76,197 TEU, a decline of 1.5 percent; and the Indian subcontinent handled 40,542 TEU, a year-over-year increase of 19.3 percent, according to PIERS.

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